For Hong Kong's student protesters, 2015 is off to a dismal start. They'd hoped that months-long demonstrations would lead to greater openness and dialogue with the city's pro-China government. Now that he's cleared the streets, though, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying seems to have lost interest in talking.
On Jan. 5, Leung cancelled town hall meetings aimed at strengthening lines of communication with citizens. A day later, the government released a 217-page "Report on the Recent Community and Political Situation in Hong Kong” that glossed over the gripes of pro-democracy forces. Police may begin arresting more than 30 protest organizers as soon as next week.
The report to Beijing is particularly telling. Meant to be a comprehensive and "truthful" autopsy of protests that disrupted the city for more than two months, in reality it's a whitewash. The report concludes, wrongly, that Hong Kong and China share a “common aspiration” politically. Protest backers are demanding a free choice of their own leader by 2017; Beijing wants to vet the candidates. That's a pretty fundamental divide. As 18-year-old student leader Joshua Wong, one of those on the wanted list, said on Facebook: "This report was meant to be a sweetener from the government," offered as a concession after earlier talks with protesters. "But there’s no sugar coating on this sweetener. It’s poison.”
It's also terribly shortsighted. During the protests, Hong Kong's leaders, and by extension China's President Xi Jinping, displayed surprising patience as demonstrators closed major thoroughfares. After a couple of unfortunate episodes -- police using tear-gas on Sept. 28 and beating a democracy activist in mid-October -- authorities chose to wait out rather than round up protesters. The softer approach worked.
This should be a moment for further reconciliation, not retaliation. Instead, by treating the leaders of peaceful protests like criminals instead of negotiating partners, Hong Kong officials are only making it harder to find common ground. Pro-democratic legislators have already vowed to veto the government's electoral plan without changes. Renewed street protests are hardly out of the question.
Officials like to claim that they're upholding the rule of law by arresting protest leaders, and say that the latter's demands contravene the Basic Law that forms the framework for the city's return to Chinese rule in 1997. These actions are not taking place in a vacuum, however. Recent years have seen a steady and ominous encroachment on Hong Kong's autonomy, including efforts to pass a vague anti-subversion law, impose “patriotic education” on students and goad the media into self-censorship. In July, Beijing circulated a white paper urging tougher controls over Hong Kong's institutions and people.
Is the city's justice ministry still free to evaluate the merits of a prosecution impartially, or must it weigh Beijing's priorities? Can a Hong Kong resident or multinational company face malicious prosecution for holding views at odds with President Xi's Communist Party? The answers are less and less clear.
It's up to Leung to figure out how to straddle his two constituencies. Part of what angers protesters is the sense that his administration values the needs of pro-China billionaires over those of workers struggling to eke out a living. Repeatedly parroting Beijing's line about the 2017 elections makes Leung look even more like a lackey. What he really needs to do is build bridges to his own citizens -- all of them.
He could have started by representing their concerns honestly to mainland leaders in this week's report. Now, rather than focusing on arrests, he should be talking more openly and in far greater detail about ways to tweak the size and makeup of the nominating committee that is meant to select candidates in 2017. Why not open the process to pro-democratic legislators, student protesters and civil society? Until the government starts making concrete suggestions, protest leaders will have little reason to believe in Leung's sincerity.
The goal, after a deeply unsettled 2014, should be to restore stability and the public's faith in Hong Kong's government. That can't be achieved unless protesters' grievances are treated as legitimate. So arrest them if you must, but hand out suspended sentences at worst. Then find a room and sit down to talk to them -- for real this time.
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